Delhi: In AAP-LG power tussle, federalism is the ultimate casualty

Govt has 'come to a standstill' after CM Kejriwal's arrest, said Delhi HC

Supporters wear facemasks of Jailed Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal during his wife Sunita Kejriwal's roadshow at Tilak Nagar in support of Aam Aadmi Party's  (AAP) candidate from West Delhi constituency Mahabal Mishra for the Lok Sabha polls, in New Delhi | PTI Supporters wear facemasks of Jailed Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal during his wife Sunita Kejriwal's roadshow at Tilak Nagar in support of Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) candidate from West Delhi constituency Mahabal Mishra for the Lok Sabha polls, in New Delhi | PTI

A day after reprimanding the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for putting “political interest above the national interest”, the Delhi High Court said that the AAP-led government has “come to a standstill” after the arrest of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. The court was hearing a petition on the non-supply of books and stationery to nearly 2 lakh Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) schools depriving students of basic amenities. 

 “A CM’s post in a buzzing capital like Delhi is not ceremonial and it is a post where the office holder has to be available 24×7,” the court observed. The civic work has come to a halt, the AAP claimed, due to the non-formation of the MCD standing committee, the highest decision-making body. 

 About a fortnight ago, a 15-year-old girl fatally stabbed a woman in a dispute over water in Delhi's Farsh Bazar area, sparking one of the many stand-offs between the Lieutenant Governor (LG) and the AAP, who blatantly engaged in a blame-game on a daily basis, even as people of Delhi continue to bear the brunt of gaps in governance. 

 The court’s remarks, however, point to a deeper malaise that has gripped the national capital. A cursory reading of what is unfolding in Delhi will tell that the city finds itself at a crossroads where federal values are rapidly eroding. The exchange of barbs between the LG and the AAP over postponement of mayoral and deputy major elections is another case in point exemplifying that federal processes have decayed at all levels of governance. The city has evidently plummeted on the federal index, which procedurally entails both top-down and bottom-up cordiality. 

 Federalism evolved over decades around synonyms adjectives such as accommodation, bargain, compromise, mutual interdependence and most recently cooperative. Acting as a key pillar of centre-state relations, it is based on a system of governance in which powers are divided between central and state governments, some falling in the Centre’s domain, some in the state basket and others shared. 

Delhi, being the national capital, has a unique federal relationship with the Centre in comparison to other states and union territories. The Legislative Assembly of the National Capital Territory of Delhi has competence over entries in List II (state list) and List III (concurrent list) except for excluded entries – public order, police and land – of List II. 

While ruling in favour of the elected government of Delhi, the Supreme Court in 2023 held that the Delhi government will have legislative and executive control over administrative services except for the three excluded entries. A few weeks later, the Centre passed an ordinance nullifying the SC order, giving the powers back to the LG. Since then, this has been a major bone of contention between the AAP government and the centrally appointed LG. 

 Today, the AAP and the Congress members of the INDIA alliance are sparring with the BJP over the erosion of the faith of people in the federal system.

Democracy and federalism are sides of the same coin. They converge to bring about the same desirable outcome – a just and viable polity reconciling autonomy and control. They both tend to operate through processes rather than structures. And there lies the key. 

While democratic values are predominantly put to the ultimate test during elections, federalism has a far bigger role to play in the day-to-day operation of the very processes that breathe life into structures to ensure that differing views are aligned for a common good. In Delhi, however, processes are marred with suspicion and deep mistrust today. 

The tussle in the city has become a painful predicament for the people. It began when the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014 and the AAP formed the government in Delhi with a dominating victory, winning 67 assembly seats out of 70. Since then, run-ins between the Kejriwal government and the Centre over governance-related matters increasingly assumed political overtones undermining the federal principles. 

Soon after coming to power, the Kejriwal government and the then L-G, Najeeb Jung locked horns over issues of control over the Anti Corruption Branch, transfer and posting of senior officers (the issue still is a thorn in centre-UT relations), and movement of official files, showing total lack of accommodation and coordination. Another controversy erupted when Jung appointed the chief secretary whom Kejriwal asked not to take charge, eroding the trust between the two levels of government and jeopardising hopes of a “federal compromise.” 

 If Jung’s tenure initiated the ongoing tussle over control of services, the former Union home secretary Anil Baijal's stint as the L-G proved even more sour witnessing numerous face-offs, the most remarkable being a dharna staged by Arvind Kejriwal and his cabinet colleagues inside Raj Niwas in 2018, alleging that city bureaucrats were not listening to the ministers. 

 In July 2021, the then deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia voiced objection to Baijal holding meetings with officers and instructing them on works that directly came under the purview of the elected government. 

 In May 2022, V. K. Saxena took charge as the L-G and ordered an enquiry into the procedural lapses in the now-scrapped Delhi liquor policy. The AAP government accuses the BJP-led central government of carrying out a “political vendetta” by misusing the investigating agencies in the case. Along with Kejriwal, two Delhi ministers, Manish Sisodia and Satyendra Jain are now in jail. AAP Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh came out on bail about a month ago. 

 Political differences are part of governance. Armed with the capacity to be a balancer between differing views that often collide for power, federalism tends to employ an accommodative approach to conflict resolution. That is the reason why, historically, it emphasises adjectives that look to find common ground for the good of the people. Prof. Rekha Saxena, Delhi University wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly, “In lieu of a conflict between Parliament’s legislative supremacy and Delhi’s executive supremacy, it is preferable to strengthen the consultative mechanism between the union government and the Government of Delhi.” 

 Antony Birch remarked in 1966 that federalism had entered a new phase which could conveniently be called “co-operative federalism”, the terminology having immense contemporary resonance nationally in India. 

 The Delhi conundrum and the bitter battle with its pungent twists and turns every day, exudes anything but “cooperative federalism”. All necessary indicators that constitute a healthy federal relationship between the national government and its constituent unit seem virtually absent indicating that federalism has taken a backseat. 

 When “political interests” are placed above everything else, federalism is the ultimate casualty and people are the ultimate sufferers. 

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